The state’s labor department and attorney general are jointly investigating food manufacturer Hearthside Food Solutions and staffing agency Elite Staffing for possible violations of llinois’ child labor law, the agencies said Friday. Advertisement Hearthside, which is headquartered in Downers Grove, was one of the companies named in a New York Times investigation into migrant child labor across the country published last month. The Times investigation, which focused on Hearthside’s operations in Grand Rapids, Michigan, found that young migrant teenagers worked dangerous jobs at the company’s facilities there in violation of child labor laws.
Hearthside Food Solutions, one of the United States’ largest food contractors, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Nov. 11, 2022. (Kirsten Luce/The New York Times) Elite Staffing provides temp workers to Hearthside in Illinois.
Advertisement Subpoenas have been issued to Hearthside and Elite, Jane Flanagan, director of the Illinois Department of Labor, said in a written statement provided to the Tribune Friday. “As this is an ongoing investigation we have no further comment at this time,” Flanagan said. The attorney general’s office said three companies had been subpoenaed, but a spokesperson could not say why the third company was not named.
In a statement, Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office said it was seeking information ”related to disturbing allegations of possible violations of child labor laws. ” Scott Allen, a spokesperson for the U. S.
Department of Labor, confirmed the national agency was also investigating Hearthside but could not reveal which facilities were under investigation. Hearthside said Friday it had been “taking actions related to the issues raised about temporary workers supplied by our staffing agencies to support our operations. ” Advertisement Those steps include “reducing” its reliance on temporary workers, increasing oversight of staffing agencies and instituting document verification training with hiring managers, the company said.
In a statement prior to the announcement of the state investigation, Hearthside said it had hired a law firm to conduct an outside review of its practices. “We have been working hard to determine whether any underage individuals were working under assumed identities, fake names and dates of birth on official documentations, such as applications, IDs and tax forms,” the company said in the earlier statement. Hearthside also said that it had started requiring workers to present a government-issued photo ID to enter its production facilities.
Elite Staffing said in a statement Friday that it will cooperate with the state investigation. “We take our obligation to comply with state and federal labor laws very seriously and maintain robust policies and processes that require new hires to demonstrate their eligibility to work,” Elite said in a statement. “Elite Staffing has several measures in place to prevent the acceptance of fraudulent documents.
We have developed a comprehensive screening and recruiting process that includes rigorous document review, multiple in-person assessments, compliance system checks and ongoing supervision at the client site. ” Advertisement Maria, a Little Village resident and a mother of three, worked until last year at Hearthside’s production facility in Romeoville, about 30 miles southwest of Chicago. There, said Maria — who is in the U.
S. without legal permission and did not want to give her last name to the Tribune for fear that she would be blacklisted from other jobs — she worked alongside children as young as 13. Most of the kids in the facility worked over a conveyor belt placing slices of cheese on breakfast sandwiches, Maria said.
Jossalyn Gonzalez Perez, center left, and Carolina Ramirez, center right, migrant children who attend high school during the day and work at Hearthside Food Solutions in the evenings, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Nov. 9, 2022. (Kirsten Luce/The New York Times) “You could just tell that they weren’t of age, you could see it on their face,” Maria said.
Two of her own children are 12 and 14, and she said the kids she worked with reminded her of her own. Advertisement Hearthside has 10 manufacturing sites in Illinois. They include facilities in Bolingbrook, Geneva, Gibson City, Wenona, Carol Stream, Itasca, Romeoville, Woodridge and two in Des Plaines.
Hearthside is a food contract manufacturer, which means it produces food products such as bars, cookies, crackers and fresh and frozen foods for other companies. The company told the Tribune it does not name its customers, though the Times reported that the products Hearthside makes include Cheerios, Lucky Charms and Cheetos. Hearthside said 4,300 full and part-time workers, including those employed by staffing agencies, work in its Illinois facilities.
The number excludes corporate employees at the Downers Grove headquarters. Advertisement Hearthside said it uses E-Verify, an online program that allows companies to verify employment eligibility by matching employee-given information with Social Security and Homeland Security records. But Hearthside only began requiring the staffing agencies it works with to use E-Verify a few weeks ago; the company said it issued a mandate on Feb.
22, shortly before the Times published its investigation, requiring staffing agencies to begin using the program by March 6. Illinois Rep. Dagmara Avelar joins a group of activists as they gather near the Hearthside Foods packaging facility to speak out against child labor on March 6, 2023, in Bolingbrook.
The activists were accusing Hearthside of employing child workers hired through temporary employment agencies at their facility. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) At shift change on a weekday afternoon in mid-March, two workers who spoke with the Tribune outside Hearthside’s facility in Romeoville said that teenagers under 18 still worked at the facility. The teenagers are from Guatemala, the workers said.
“It got to a point where the company really can’t do anything,” one of the employees said. “The kids find a way to falsify identities and birth certificates. All they have to do is send money back home and they get a new one.
” Other workers who spoke with the Tribune said they had not seen or heard of children working at the facility. In total, four workers said they had seen or heard of children working there and four said they had not. Advertisement Hearthside has been repeatedly cited by the U.
S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration for alleged workplace safety violations. Nationally, Hearthside has been cited by OSHA 20 times over the last five years.
Three times since 2019, OSHA has cited the company after workers in Illinois suffered finger or fingertip amputations at work. The company is contesting one of those alleged violations. In response to a request for comment regarding its OSHA violations, Hearthside cited its incident rate, which it said was significantly lower than the incident rate in the food manufacturing industry overall.
The Department of Labor said it could not confirm an individual company’s incident rate. “The 20 OSHA accidents in question occurred during a five-year window when workers at Hearthside logged up to 27 million hours per year,” the company said in a statement. Advertisement Concerns about child workers can be reported to the labor department’s Child Labor Hotline at 800-645-5784 or the Attorney General’s Workplace Rights Hotline at 844-740-5076.
Chicago Tribune’s Laura Rodríguez Presa contributed. [email protected]. com [email protected].